Archives for posts with tag: Baltimore

I’m an internal medicine doctor, which means I see adult patients in Baltimore. Today I saw one of my favorite patients. She has chronic pain and a particular gastrointestinal syndrome which leads to frequent hospitalizations. Both make it very difficult, and really — in practicality — impossible for her to work. Her disability is taking a while to come through, because “chronic pain” and “back pain” are too often not considered as “real disease” by the powers that be. She can’t afford many of her prescriptions because she lacks an income. She might get evicted any day.

I realized today what medical intervention would help her the most.

You know what prescription she needs?

Money. She needs money.

I come to this book as an outsider. I am a white guy, a Jew, reviewing a volume of African American poetry for black people in Baltimore. I do this because I live in Baltimore, I feel a kinship with African Americans due to our shared history; and I want to know how poetry of different communities works.

This is all the more true because Tariq Touré’s poetry, in this black-and-white volume called “Black Seeds,” is aimed at his community. These are short poems about the state of black Baltimore, about life and death and striving, murder and failure and desperation. Each poem is accompanied on the facing page by an image, often a photo of an African American looking into the camera. The portraits are unadorned, beautiful.

This is 31rwu9z9dl-_sx322_bo1204203200_more than a community – it is an audience before whom the poet is performing. This is a multimedia presentation. It is based on the slam esthetic: each poem ends with a boldfaced title, the performer naming what he has just delivered with a flourish.

There are calls to nationalism:

“I see empires in your furrowed eyebrows” — Nubia

… and prayerful meditations on the self:

“Man is given seconds, yet begs for minutes”–The curious attention span

This is hip-hop on the page, and as such strikes a balance. On the one hand there is rhyme aplenty and anaphora, familiar in any oral tradition; on the other these are verses with plenty of space, cascading down the page, and capital letters to give emphasis. There is a poem Balance about this tension between the weight of history (and literacy) and the present-day of orality (and popular culture):

I have friends
Who sit and Pontificate
Musing over Plans
To leave
More than
A biological imprint
7 generations
Down the stream
Apple headed children
Trip over
Their forefathers & foremothers
On the way to school


I have friends
That have only
For Saturday night

The entire slim volume is balanced on the razor’s edge of this conflict: duties to the self versus duties to one’s people; honoring past martyrs and building bridges to the future impervious to flame.

Indeed, this book is surrounded by flame, fire out of the gunbarrels of police and the torches of protest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. One would expect there to be more hate. I don’t read that here, though there is sorrow and rage:

Jim crow’s skeleton
fell out of
a police van
crashed onto the ashen pavement
paraded down Pennsylvania avenue
brutalized the metal cavalry
of pigs
announcing a 100% off sale
the city glowed
as Watts glowed
as Harlem glowed
as Ferguson glowed
for Freddie

Baltimore Power Keg

“Glowing” as candles glow, not burning or flaming as an explosion. The skeleton, zombified, brings multiple sites of tragedy and brutality into redemptive communion.

In the wake of my move to Baltiimore seven years ago, and even more so in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I have read more and more (though still not enough) contemporary poetry by African Americans. These poets inhabit a diverse space. Toure’s is not the academic poetry of Terrence Hayes or the pop-culture fueled confessional wit of Saeed Jones. His gifts are in the shared world of oral and written, of street, school, protest, home, and quiet self. I look forward to reading more of him, as he sheds his glow.

The saga continues, thanks to an intriguing letter from the Baltimore Police. Or, perhaps, the whole thing never happened at all.

Partnering with Patients in Decision-Making: Continuing the Conversation at Johns Hopkins will take place on June 1st, 2016, from 8am to 5pm, in the Owens Auditorium in the Cancer Research Building. Open to all, this meeting will feature discussions of clinical, educational, and research approaches to decision making in the Johns Hopkins Medicine context, emphasizing diversity, interdisciplinarity, and the particular needs of Baltimore. Two keynote speakers with national reputations, as well as a poster session, will help make this a day to assess where we stand and move forward to enable change. The meeting is free of charge.

Our generous sponsors are the School of Nursing, the Patient Experience Office at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the journal The Patient — Patient-Centered Outcomes Research, as well as the Primary Care Consortium. Institutional sponsors include the School of Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Please respond to this poll to let us know whether you might attend and how you might like to be involved further.

Best wishes,
Zackary Berger, MD, PhD
For the organizing committee

F9781627200141-OneNation-COV.inddor a polyglot midrashic poetic joyride on a Yiddish-English-Baltimore-American bassackward hybrid – with musical cantor-brown-300x200stylings too – come see me and Cantor Ariane Brown at Adas Israel Congregation, Washington, DC, on Sunday, November 8th. I’ll read from my book of poetry One Nation Taken Out of Another, which features the following main characters:

Avra(ha)m of Ur
Avrom Sutzkever
Matriarchs aplenty
Amy Weinhouse
et al.

In recent months, two stories of mine, both having to do with medicine, healing, and Baltimore, have appeared in two literary journals.683788737

In “A Letter for You,” appearing in Gravel, a white doctor tries to orient himself with regard to his African-American patients.

In the first issue of Dryland, a new litmag from LA, you can read my story “Pain and the Machine,” in which a floor buffer chases a janitor down the hall.

I’d love to hear your reactions to these.

A poem from One Nation Taken Out of Another.


My mother was a domestic worker. My father worked for Bethl’m Steel. Neither of them had any insurance. He died and they got insurance. Three thousand dollars. Eighty eight dollars a month for her and the kids. She didn’t get any Social Security because of who she worked for. Three kids! Imagine if they had gotten sick. They never got sick. We never got sick! I think everyone should get health insurance. Why don’t they want them to get health insurance?”Bethlehem Steel Mill

“They don’t like poor people.”

“It’s not their fault! I think everyone should have it.”

“I saw Selma. It was a great movie. I had four kids then. I couldn’t get up and go to protests. I saw Obama when he spoke to our church group. I didn’t think he was going to be president. I never thought a black man could be president.”

PechaKucha is a presentation format in which the speaker tells their story in “less is more” fashion, using only 20 images and speaking for only 20×20 seconds. Thanks to Hillel Glazer and some other high-energy organizers, an evening of such presentations recently took place in Baltimore. Check out mine below, featuring Dante, the caduceus, and communication.

Cross-posted from the LitMore blog. Thanks to Julie Fisher for the opportunity!

In the first months after I got here, I asked myself when I would be able to say “I come from Baltimore.” Then I realized that’s a stupid question. A city doesn’t require the participation of any given person. That is its promise of freedom and alienation: you can move to a city and be completely anonymous. Baltimore doesn’t care whether I’m from it or not.

The real question is: have I really gotten to know Baltimore yet? Do I feel a part? Living here means confronting huge daily diifferences. Black and white, rich and poor live starkly opposed lives in this city, and since I have always lived a life of comparative privilege it becomes a responsibility to place myself, somehow, within the entire city of Baltimore, not just the thin strip of rich white suburbs I live and commute in.

It’s hard to meet different kinds of people. You have to talk to strangers, which I’m not comfortable doing. But there are two things I love which have helped me overcome, if only in small measure, my city-dweller’s inertia which keeps me an individual in an atomized society. One is writing. The other is medicine. The two – especially in Baltimore – reinforce each other.

I work as a doctor in the gleaming city on a hill that is the Johns Hopkins medical campus. Hopkins has had its difficulties relating to the community, and only in past decades come to realize its responsibility and interrelatedness with it. I practice general internal medicine: in other words, I treat sick and healthy adults of all sorts: all colors, sizes, ages, shapes, and incomes.

As an ordinary person, I am impatient, preferring the constrained dimensions of poetry to the sprawling indulgence of a novel. “Yeah, get to the point,” I tend to mutter to myself when someone treats me to a tale. As a doctor, not through any alchemy but by dint of education, sustained practice, and proffesional aspirations, I listen more. I take down stories. I write down patients’ tales of suffering, anguish, success, heartbreak, and courage nearly every day – without any attention to literary artifice or style.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell these stories to anybody. This is a good thing, I think, this confidentiality. But it does compartmentalize. Over here is my comfortable, privileged rich-white existence, the one lived by 25% of Baltimoreans, more or less. And over there is the existence of many more Baltimoreans who are different from me in various ways. I can’t tell their stories in all their painful exactitude outside of work. Recently, many medical centers have started “allowing” patients to see their own medical notes, but none in Baltimore that I know of – and at Hopkins that is definitely not the case.

What I can do, though, is make up stories about people like them that I can share with the wider public, or at least with whoever wants to read them. Thus, without any concrete plan in this regard, I have been trying to write short stories ever since I came to Baltimore. I’m just starting out so I’m not very good at it. Learning how to put characters through their paces feels a lot like learning the lessons I have perhaps more completely internalized, in the past decade or so, as a parent of young kids: you can try to bodily move them from place to place, strenuously indicating that they should PUT ON THEIR SHOES and GET INTO THE CAR, but sometimes characters – like kids – have to be let alone to do what they want.

These stories that I’m trying to write and the narratives I record in the medical chart have a lot in common. They are meant to be read. They have a point: In the medical record, Chekhov’s adage about the gun hanging on the wall is all the more fitting. If someone comes to the doctor with chest pain, the doctor better proffer an explanation, by the end of the note, why she thinks the pain is there. Medical notes, like stories, can’t be loose, baggy, or meandering. They must hold the reader.

And both the medical note and the created story must understand the other human being, through acknowledging their concrete yet unknowable specificity. As a doctor I might not know what it is like to have many relatives in jail, others with mental illness, and still others with substance use problems. But I know what pain is like. When a patient comes to me with pain, I can try and heal it despite my ignorance of their inner life.

As a writer, I can no more divine someone’s psychic struggles than I can as a doctor. But I can try and externalize those struggles in a plausible way through showing what they do, what happens to them, what they say and how they react. I don’t aspire to any measure of healing through my still-inexpert prose stylings. But I do hope to inhabit this city of inequities more fully, and become another in the long line of Baltimore writers: if not through my stories, then at least through my medical notes in the privacy of the exam room.